Meemo’s Farm, a prime bird hunting destination in north central Michigan, was the setting for dog trainer Ronnie Smith’s “Foundation Seminar,” a two-day introduction to the “Silent Command System” of dog training. Participants ranged in experience from those working with their first dogs to professional handlers/guides to veteran trainers with more than 40 years of experience.
The yowling dogs experiencing the “chain gang” for the first time force trainer Ronnie Smith to raise his voice above his normal, subdued and polite level.
“Uncle Delmar said, ‘You have to learn a dog to learn.’ You have to teach a dog to learn its job.”
One of the biggest names in dog training from a generation ago, Delmar Smith developed the method known as the “Silent Command System.” As its name implies, this method relies more on teaching dogs through body language than through spoken commands.
To do that, says Ronnie, “You’ve got to think like a dog. Training is all about the mindset of the dog. Understand what they are thinking, and you can begin teaching them.”
That’s the key to the philosophical aspect of the system that Smith instills in participants in the “Foundation Seminars” he holds around the country. In essence, the seminars give in-person instructions and demonstrations of the techniques he teaches in his excellent training book, Training Bird Dogs with Ronnie Smith Kennels: Proven Techniques and an Upland Tradition (see “Tailgate Reviews,” Winter 2019).
At this particular seminar, a two-day, 14-hour affair held at Meemo’s Farm in Evart, Michigan, Smith explains his training technique as “a stair-step system; you take one step at a time.” He assures his students that if they follow the steps, “You will be able to go home and be successful.”
If you think about it, Smith’s ultimate goal during these seminars seems to be to “learn the handlers to learn.”
The first day of the seminar was the first time many of the dogs were introduced to the “chain gang,” and some of them didn’t like it. While it’s the same term once used for prison work crews, the tool might more appropriately be called the “gang chain,” for it is the chain that keeps the gang of dogs in place. A chain is staked out at each end with “drop lines” established every six feet or so. Not only does the tool confine the dogs to a single area, but it also teaches them patience, as they have to wait their turns. Some trainers think the dogs sometimes learn just by watching the other dogs go through their lessons.
“Let’s form a semicircle with your chairs facing this way,” Meemo’s Hunt Manager Tracey Lieske directed the seminar’s participants. “We want you watching Ronnie, not your dogs.”
Like a rock star on tour to support his latest album, Ronnie Smith of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, travels the country giving seminars that introduce participants to his excellent book, Training Bird Dogs with Ronnie Smith Kennels.
At 4 months of age, Finn the English pointer was the youngest participant in the seminar. Also, until this sequence of photos, he was the only dog present that had no previous experience on birds. In this sequence, note how distracted Finn is when assistant trainer Tim Fox strides past him; he is unaware of the pigeon in the weeds ahead of him. Next, when Fox twirls the bird at the end of a line, Finn wants to dash in toward it. Finally, as Fox releases the bird, Finn focuses now on the bird and has for the most part quit straining against Ronnie Smith. Notice in all three photos, Smith has established what he recommends as the “three points of contact”: controlling in the neck area, supporting the belly and (hidden) nestling the dog up against his knee.
In the first exercise in which the dogs and owners participate, a squad of dogs heads toward planted birds, rotating the lead dog with each bird. Notice how calm Finn is being for his owner, Nick Buggia of Mayville, Michigan, who has established those three points of contact.
In the foreground, Cody Oracz, a guide at Meemo’s, steadies club dog Willow, a 1½-year-old German short-haired pointer. Notice two English setters to the left of center in the background. They are learning a lesson that Smith had stressed earlier: “Backing” – the action whereby other dogs “honor” or respect the point established by the first dog in – is a behavior based on sight, not scent.
Brigid the English setter seems to have charmed her way off the chain gang. Her owner, Al Stewart of Bath Township, Michigan, has been breeding, training and hunting his own dogs for over 40 years. Nevertheless, he says, “I’m always open to exploring new bird dog training techniques. I learned long ago that there is more than one way to help a hunting dog reach its full potential. I thought this seminar would help me expand my skills and add some new tools to my personal dog training playbook.” Over 35 years ago, Stewart heard Delmar Smith speak at a luncheon. He says, “I learned more during Delmar’s half-hour presentation than any other exposure that I’ve had to dog training. As this two-day seminar progressed, it was clear that Ronnie not only learned from the best, but he was also able to modernize the lesson plan and add his own touch to the training world.” Plus, Stewart added, Smith made an impression with “his comments about how his training program has been adjusted as he learned more about dog behavior.”
This series of photos illustrates one important trait of solid dog training that is better understood by seeing in person rather than through reading about it: the importance of the trainer remaining calm. In the first photo, Patty the English setter is showing signs that he is isn’t interested in what’s going on. Seemingly ignoring Patty, Smith tells the group in his calm and steady tone, if a dog continually disobeys the handler, “There’s a social ladder, and we aren’t establishing it.” This is why we see more and more problems with spoiled pets: “Those dogs have to become the leaders, and the fearful leaders are becoming the alpha dogs. … Nurture is stronger than nature.” The blow-up photo shows that while speaking and without messing a beat, Smith establishes his leadership by giving a subtle tap-tap on the lead with only a couple fingers, just to send a “Pay attention” message to Patty. A few minutes later, notice the slack in the lead: Smith, the leader, has Patty walking calmly at heel. Al Stewart noted, “Ronnie’s behavior has a calming effect on both dogs and humans. He’s an astute observer, active listener and accomplished instructor. His ability to assess his student’s training actions and provide polite and pertinent feedback was key to the success of this seminar.”
By Day Two, most of the dogs were old hands at the chain gang and settled right in for another go-round. This is the about the same level of excitement Smith likes to see when a dog gets ready to hunt. “There is no need for a dog to ‘run off’ his energy at the beginning of the hunt. You’ve got to teach the dog that when you enter the equation, it’s time for business.”
Brigid and Al Stewart take a few reps on the “whoa post.” This is simply a stake driven into the ground to which is tied a long check cord that develops tautness as the dog walks farther away from it. The handler, at the end of another long check cord, continues walking and just calmly waits for the dog to realize it can’t go any farther and settles down. “Don’t lead a dog into birds and try to teach him to whoa,” says Smith. “Take the game (bird) out of this lesson. Then when you enforce it, it has nothing to do with the game.” That was but one of several pointers Stewart says he picked up during the seminar. “I learned that a simple hand on the dog’s withers garners better results than lavish petting and praise do during a positive training activity. The hand on the shoulder confirms ‘job well done’ while the active praise gestures can be distracting to your doggie student and limit full comprehension. “A simple yawn or swallow is confirmation of learning during a training lesson. “I learned a dog never forgets! Each interaction is ingrained in a dog’s mind. Make each contact count towards your dog’s future potential. Have a lesson plan for each outing. Try to limit negative exposure that can require additional training to overcome.”
Here Finn looks totally at ease as he takes his turn on the whoa post. Actually, according to Smith, Finn is giving his situation careful consideration. “On the whoa post, the dog is in an uber-controlled process: It can’t move forward; it can’t move backward; it can only sit there and think.” That’s what Finn is doing. Smith says when a dog turns its head 45 degrees to the side as Finn is doing, that’s a sign that the dog is “thinking.” Obviously, this is much preferred over a dog baying and bucking against the restraints.
On Day Two, the squads searched for birds in thicker cover. Jill Koren (center), the Kennel Manager and a guide at Otter Creek Farmstead and Distillery in Ohatchee, Alabama, was attending her second Foundation Seminar in preparation for attending an Intermediate Seminar. She appreciates Smith’s lesson that, “If you can read a dog correctly, talk to the dog without using words and establish a point of contact, you (the trainer) can then understand completely what you are teaching the dog and whether the dog is understanding the lesson/concept being taught. “I left the seminars with confidence in myself to train my dogs and to hold them to the highest standard.”